It’s easy to think of photographs as records of what happened. Abelardo Morell’s photographs are so much more capacious than that. They trace the labyrinths of perception, imagination, and repositories of knowledge. Like his best-known camera obscura photographs, they bring the outside world in, and project it against the architecture of our inner lives. They feel that intimate, that big, that full of wonder.
The lush, delectable book “The Universe Next Door” accompanies a new Morell retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. A thoughtful essay by exhibition curator Elizabeth Siegel and an interview with Morell conducted by Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, where the show will travel, spell out the trajectory of the artist’s career.
In the mid-1980s, Morell started crawling around on the floor with his infant son, photographing the domestic world from that perspective. Toy blocks covered with pictures of chickens and ducklings tower almost menacingly in one image; in another, the photographer captures the foreshortened slope of a slide from the very top, as if it was a blurred mercury slick.
Morell, who lives in Brookline, taught at Massachusetts College of Art and Design for 27 years, retiring in 2011. He would cover the windows in his classroom and make a small hole in one shade. Students would be astonished when the cars along Huntington Avenue appeared in an inverted projection on the opposite wall. He had made the room into a big camera obscura.
Tiny apertures can cast images. Aristotle was among the first to note the optical principal, in the 4th century BC. Morell started to employ the camera obscura at home, projecting the neighborhood outside onto the wall over his son’s toy dinosaurs and photographing the scene in black and white. It’s an unnerving image: a bedroom flooded with the world outside. It speaks to the negotiations we make every day between our lives out there and our lives in here.
Books and art also mediate between the larger culture and our imaginations, and Morell photographs both in revelatory ways. A slightly open volume shows the legs of a Goya nude sliding toward her arms across the seam; the gloss of the paper creates a reflection of her upper half on the opposite page. A series of photographs based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has clipped copies of John Tenniel’s illustrations coming alive; in one, a hand reaches out from between pages of a book and startles the White Rabbit.
Morell only started shooting in color in 2005. He was crafting a camera obscura image at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sun lit up the pillars outside, which projected upside down on a wall that held only a de Chirico painting. The warm, late afternoon tones match those in the painting, as the architecture from the projection pivots over de Chirico’s.
From there, the artist leaped into digital photography, shortening his hours-long camera obscura exposures. He also now uses a prism to orient the projection right side up, and a lens to make it crisper. The resulting images, cast against hotel room and office walls, are less dreamy than the earlier ones, and more like films — immersive, wildly vivid.
Most recently, Morell has invented a tent camera, with a periscope to glean images outside and project them on the ground inside. A view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the deep space of the sky beyond it, is cast on a ground of dirt and flattened grass, then photographed. That interplay of surface and depth is a painter’s game. In a photograph, it’s positively otherworldly.
Then again, other worlds are Morell’s specialty — especially those that exist in the multiple universes of the imagination.